The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
Tim Perry, an Evangelical theologian who teaches at Providence College in Otterburne, Manitoba, had the fine idea of asking some leading Evangelical thinkers to comment on the encyclicals of the late Pope John Paul II. It was a safe bet for a book.
Each encyclical (thirteen in all), from Redemptor hominis (1979) to Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), is sensitively summarized. Even readers familiar with the encyclicals will learn something from most of the presentations. All are done with care and most reflect real engagement with the material.
Among the authors are the Methodist theologian William Abraham, the historian Mark Noll, the apologist Nancy Pearcey, “open theist” Clark Pinnock, and social activist Ronald Sider. The Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George supplies an epilogue titled “Our Common Teacher.”
The critical parts, predictably, are less successful. Not that they are harsh. No, they are too half-hearted. Too often the criticisms are merely wooden recitations of Catholic principles to which Protestants—generically conceived—would not assent.
Missing is discerning critical engagement with the thought of John Paul II, motivated by heartfelt Protestant conviction. Noll comes nearest in his criticism of Ecclesia de Eucharistia. There he ably contends that “the great remaining divide between Catholics and evangelicals who share the ‘mere Christianity’ of Nicene faith” lies in their different conceptions of the Church, rather than, for example, in doctrines about Mary or sacraments or Scripture.
The cooperative, fraternal ecumenism of which John Paul II was such a symbol is everywhere evident in this book. The writers are wide open to Catholic thinking.
Commenting on the different responses to the question of technology, for example, Derek Jeffreys writes that “few evangelicals have contemplated its meaning,” whereas “John Paul II was fully aware of technology’s dangers.” Philosophers Michael Beaty and Stephen Evans contrast what they see as the “anti-intellectualism” of Evangelical scholarly life with the “much more robust understanding of faith and reason articulated in Fides et ratio.” Oxford ethicist Andrew Goddard, writing about Veritatis splendor, refers to “the sad fact that moral theology, and particularly methodology in ethics, has not been a great evangelical strength.”
Such remarks (and there are lots of them) are attestations of the authors’ candor, impartiality, and good faith. But they also point to a widespread impatience with denominationalism among Evangelicals, an impatience acutely felt, and part, indeed, of the traditional desire of radical Protestantism to get to the core of Christian faith.
The same thought could be put in a more critical way, however. In this book, John Paul is called magisterial, a shepherd of God’s people, a ten-talent man, our common teacher, and, again and again, John Paul the Great. Few can assess his pontificate without superlatives.
But is it right to consider John Paul an outstanding Christian leader who just happened to be Catholic? Would the rapprochement we find in these pages have been possible had the authors considered not so much John Paul’s personal merits as his role as bishop of Rome and his claim to be the vicar of Christ?
Liberty & Truth
The last essay of this interesting book is written by Baylor University literature professor David Lyle Jeffrey (a close friend and former colleague). It deserves special mention for its forcefulness and erudition, but also for its subject matter: the document Ex corde Ecclesiae, the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic universities.
There John Paul calls on universities to remember their commitment to truth and to aspire to “institutional fidelity to the Christian message,” together with the “adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals” that such fidelity entails.
Exhortations to truthfulness and fidelity, Jeffrey points out, are rocks of offense to the contemporary university world. He illustrates this claim with reference to Baylor University’s recent failed attempt simultaneously to boost its intellectual standing and to renew its fidelity to Baptist roots. “Why,” Jeffrey asks, “did we at Baylor, in our own case, not foresee the magnitude of our internal opposition more clearly?”
Jeffrey finds his answer in a detailed exploration of the connection between liberty and truth in Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, and others. He also explores the simulacra—self-affirmation and therapy—that universities today attempt to substitute for liberty and truth. There is much to learn from this discussion, not only for universities but for anyone who wishes to learn how to place his liberty at the service of what is true.
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“Pontifical Readings” first appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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